Methods of meat preservation without refrigeration

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Micro-organisms cannot grow unless there is sufficient moisture available to them and drying meat under conditions of natural temperatures and humidity with circulation of air and the assistance of sunshine is the oldest method of preservation (FAO 1990 c).

The free water in a food product, i.e. excluding the water bound to proteins, is termed the water activity (aw). Free water is that part that can be removed as water vapour (and is not the same as the total moisture content). "Water activity" is defined as the ratio of water vapour pressure measured in the product to the pressure of a saturated water vapour atmosphere at the same temperature.

The minimum moisture content necessary for bacterial growth varies with the type of organism. The lowest value for normal bacteria is water activity 0.91; for normal yeasts it is 0.88; for normal moulds 0.80; and for salt-tolerant (halophilic) bacteria it is 0.77.So water activity must be reduced below these levels to preserve the food.

Muscle meat of almost any kind can be dried but it is necessary to use lean meat since fat becomes rancid during the drying process. Drying involves the removal of moisture from the outer layers and the migration of moisture from the inside to the outside, so the pieces of food must be thin. The meat is cut into long thin strips or flat thin pieces and preferably salted, either dry or by dipping into salt solution, to inhibit bacterial growth and to protect from insects.

The pieces are suspended in racks in freely circulating air under hygienic conditions and protected from dirt and dust for the several days required. If the air is warm and of low humidity with relatively small temperature fluctuations between day and night the time needed will be shorter. Slow drying allows deterioration since micro-organisms can multiply in the early stages while the moisture content is still high enough. Another problem arises from the practice in developing countries of using meat from unchilled carcasses and while the temperature is still high the meat ripens rapidly so changing the flavour. At the same time there is some oxidation of the fat so further lowering the quality of the finished product.

There are a number of traditional dried products in various regions. For example biltong in South Africa, which is made from beef or antelope meat cut into strips 1 - 2 cm thick, salted, with the addition of nitrate or nitrite , spiced and dried in air for 1 - 2 weeks.

The outer layer of biltong is hard and brown with a soft, inner, red inside, and is eaten raw. It will keep for a year if stored in airtight packaging.

Typical analysis per 100 g: 11.5 g water, 1.9 g fat, 12.5 g ash, 65 g protein, 1.3 MJ (300 kcal).

Jerked beef or charque is the product used in South America which may be made from beef, llama, sheep, alpaca. The fresh meat is cut into large pieces no more than 5 cm thick, salted, pressed for several days and dried - but it still contains moisture which is allowed to drain freely from the product. It keeps for months at ambient temperatures and is resistant to insect infestation and mould growth.

Pemmican is dried meat that has been powdered or shredded and mixed with fat to form a solid product. Typical analysis per 100 g:- 3 g water, 40 g protein, 45 g fat, 2.4 MJ. Pemmican was almost a routine food taken on earlier expeditions until replaced by modern types of dried meat products.

Other traditional dried products include pastirma (Turkey, Egypt and Armenia), odka (Somalia and other countries of East Africa), qwanta (Ethiopia and East Africa) and kilishi (Nigeria and West Africa). There is a variable loss of vitamins from such products due to the long drying times which can be shortened by the use of modern drying techniques.

Such a procedure is freeze-drying which causes little or no loss of vitamins and results in products which are readily rehydrated and much closer in texture and flavour to fresh meat than the traditional dried product but calls for specialised equipment.

Partial Drying/Intermediate-Moisture Foods

In dried meats the water activity is below levels needed for microbial growth so the product is shelf-stable but there will still be chemical and physical changes due to rancidity and discolouration which call for adequate packaging. Some products such as "dry" sausages and hams cannot be dried adequately without spoiling the product - they are termed "semi-dry" - so it is necessary to combine an incomplete reduction in water activity with other methods such as lowering of pH or the addition of nitrate.

In an attempt to avoid the relatively poor texture and flavour of most dried meat products a modern development is partial drying to a moisture content of 15 to 50% and then reduction of free water to the required low levels by adding humectants such as glycerol, sorbitol or other polyhydric alcohols which combine with the free water so that it cannot be used by the micro-organisms.

The meat is cut into small pieces and treated with a mild salt solution, and the humectant and an antimycotic (anti-mould agent) are added and the meat cooked to 70C before packaging. It will keep for several months even at 38C but there are changes in texture, colour and flavour (Lawrie 1991).

Products preserved in this way are called intermediate-moisture foods and they are more succulent than dried foods but the humectants spoil the palatability and the process has been limited to animal foods in industrialised communities and for military purposes.


Micro-organisms can be completely destroyed by heat (sterilisation) but a sterile product can be readily recontaminated unless it is protected. This is achieved by heating in an air-tight can or bottle, or, more recently, in a heat-resistant or aluminium foil-laminated plastic pouch. Sausages can be filled into retortable synthetic casings sealed with aluminium clips.

The procedure is to seal the food into the container and then heat it under pressure in an autoclave (retort) to the required temperature for the required length of time and to cool rapidly to avoid overheating. Overheating results in too soft a consistency and a burnt taste. It is not always possible to destroy all the organisms without excessive heat which would spoil the product so the objective is to destroy the greater proportion of the organisms when the remaining few pose no hazard so long as the container is cooled rapidly and stored below 20-25C. This condition is termed "commercially sterile". The established standard is equivalent to a reduction in the number of micro-organisms by a factor of 10 to the power of 12 so it is clear that the higher the initial load of organisms the more will survive a standard heat treatment.

The intensity of heat treatment necessary depends on the nature of the product, its pH, and the amount of salt and other curing agents present as well as on the bacterial load. The time required at a given temperature will vary with the rate of heat penetration to the centre and so with the size of the container.

The intensity of heat treatment is defined in physical terms called F-value, which means that the product received heat treatment with the same effect on micro-organisms as exposure to a temperature of 121C for 1 minute. The standard is based on the time required at a temperature of 121C to destroy all spores of Clostridium botulinum, the most dangerous of all toxin-producing organisms. This is termed "the botulinum cook" and such treatment destroys practically all spoilage and other organisms. It takes 2.45 minutes at 121C to destroy all C. botulinum spores; this is an F-value of 2.45. Spores of other organisms are less or more heat-resistant. F-value 1 is the lethal effect on micro-organisms after 1 minute at 121C; F-value 2 (3,4) is the lethal effect after 2 (3,4) minutes.

At temperatures greater than 121C a shorter time is needed to achieve the F-value of 1, thus at 130C the time is 0.13 min. Correspondingly the time is longer at lower temperatures, thus at 115C the time is 4 min at 105C it is 40 min.

These conditions apply to foods of low acidity (pH above a value of 5) and medium acidity (pH 4.5 - 5); with more acid foods the spores of micro-organisms are less heatresistant. Meat products are mostly low-acid, while meat and vegetable mixtures are medium -acid. In practice once the F-value has been determined for a batch of food according to the size of the container the heat treatment required to treat subsequent batches is the same. Generally it has been shown that F-value 4 will usually ensure commercial sterility. Larger canned products may require F-values up to 20-25 owing to the longer periods required for heat penetration.

A fully-treated product of this type will keep for up to 4 years at ambient temperatures but even fully-preserved meat can contain a very heat-stable spore former, Clostridium sporogenes, which poses a hazard only when stored under extreme climatic conditions, namely at temperatures above about 40C If canned meat is to be stored under such conditions then it must be treated more intensively, F-value 12 or more ("tropical preservation") and then has a shelf life up to 4 years.

Virtually every type of meat product made from chopped, cured meat can be canned, as well as stewed meat, dishes in jelly, soups with meat ingredients, and pastas and sausages in brine.

Products such as luncheon meats, liver sausage, blood sausage and jellied products are adversely affected by high temperatures and are "three-quarters preserved" at F-values 0.6 to 0.8. The temperature reached at the centre of the pack is between 108 and 112C and the product is stable for up to 1 year if stored at temperatures no higher than 15C.

Cooked preserved products are simply boiled until the central temperature reaches near to 100C and they can be stored (protected from contamination) for 1 year at temperatures no higher than 10C.

Smaller size containers are most suitable for meat products because heat penetration is mostly by conduction so larger containers would require severe heat treatment involving overcooking. Large pieces of meat products such as hams, shoulders, etc., are pasteurised. Pasteurisation is a more gentle process intended to destroy only pathogenic organisms and the treatment limits the central temperature to about 80C (Fvalue almost zero). This destroys only vegetative cells and refrigeration is necessary to prevent germination of spores. Pasteurised products must be stored between 2 and 4C when they have a shelf life up to 6 months.

The temperatures quoted must be reached in the centre of the pack to ensure that the entire contents are adequately heated but protein and fat are poor heat conductors. If there is enough liquid in the can, such as meat cooked in gravy, Frankfurters in brine, or through release of liquid from the meat and liquefaction of the fat, heat can penetrate by convection as well as conduction if the can is rotated during the process. This allows a shorter heating time with less damage to flavour, texture and nutrients, and the outer layer of the food is not overheated.

Canning operations must be performed only by fully-trained personnel (FAO 1990c; Hershom and Hulland 1980).

High-temperature Short-time Processing (HTST)

Since the effect of heat in speeding up biological reactions (in this instance destruction of micro-organisms) is greater than the acceleration of chemical reactions (in this instance damage to protein and other nutrients) heating to a higher temperature for a shorter time is an effective means of preservation. Sterilisationis achieved in a shorter time with less damage to the product. The process is termed high-temperature short-time heating (HTST) and has been particularly applied to milk but can be applied to meat if there is sufficient liquid present to allow mixing of the contents by rotating the cans in the autoclave. The cans must be cooled immediately after the temperature of sterilisation has been reached to avoid overheating.

Nutritional Damage

Most of the investigations of nutritional changes in canning have involved fullypreserved foods. There are large differences reported in the literature due to differences in raw materials and conditions of processing.

Thiamin is the most labile of the vitamins and reported losses range between 20 and 40%. This is heat destruction since any water-soluble nutrient that is leached out of the meat will be retained in the can and is usually consumed together with the meat. Losses of niacin and riboflavin are about 10%, 20% of biotin, 20-30% of pantothenate.

If more accurate figures are required they would need to be determined on the specific procedure in the factory in question on the particular product.

In principle losses in canning are somewhat higher than in wet cooking since the temperature is higher, and for the parallel reason less than losses in dry cooking methods such as roasting, grilling and frying where the temperature at the surface can be between 180 and 350C So far as proteins are concerned there is some small reduction in biological value due to reduced availability of methionine and cystine. Semi-preserved meat products heated to temperatures not exceeding 100C do not suffer this damage.

The heat applied causes partial hydrolysis of the collagen so that tough meat, rich in collagen, is rendered more palatable by being canned.

During storage after canning there can be a loss of thiamin of as much as 30% depending on the length of time, and at higher storage temperatures there can be a reduction in protein quality.

Fat Embedding

A traditional process that is parallel to canning is that of cooking the meat in a vessel that can be sealed under a layer of melted fat and so protected from recontamination.

An example of such a product is mixiria of the Amazon region where the meat is roasted, sliced and sealed in jars. The layer of fat not only protects the meat from contamination but excludes oxygen, however, organisms can survive so the method is not dependable.

The process of fat embedding was tested by the Australian meat trade in the 19th century - beef was packed into barrels and covered with fat heated to 150C - but superseded by refrigeration.

It is used to a very limited extent in some industrialised countries, in particular for a product called "potted shrimps", which have been cooked in butter and sealed into jars.

Ionising Irradiation

Micro-organisms can be destroyed by subjecting a food to ionising radiation produced from radioactive or electromagnetic sources. High doses (50 kiloGrays - kGy) are required for sterilisation of meat while recommendations of WHO and legislation in most, if not all, countries limit the dose at present to 10 kGy, simply because safety has been established up to this level.

The 10 kGy dose does not sterilise the product but substantially reduces the bacterial load and is effective in destroying many pathogens including Salmonellae. A dose of 2 - 5 kGy will extend the shelf life of poultry stored at 1-3C by 8-14 days. Irradiation is of no value as a means of "cleaning up". heavily contaminated food since it would still carry a considerable microbial load, nor does it destroy toxins once they have been produced. Indeed, in some countries where irradiation is permitted microbiological standards are specified for foods to be treated. Irradiation of spices to be used for meat products has proved to be an effective way of lowering their microbial content and so increasing the shelf life of the products.

Although the preservation of food by irradiation has been intensively studied for many years its commercial application is still in its infancy. There are many problems involved since the process calls for heavy investment in factory plant and is regarded with some suspicion by consumers. Moreover irradiation does not destroy enzymes so the meat softens during storage.

Since the radiation penetrates into the product it also penetrates packaging so the food can be protected from recontamination by adequate wrapping before irradiation.

In general irradiation has some deleterious effect on vitamins but the amount of damage is not considered nutritionally significant (Codex 1984A).

Recent developments in meat processing

Mechanically Recovered Meat (MRM)

Also termed mechanically deboned and mechanically separated meat.

When bones are trimmed of adhering meat by hand some of the meat is left attached to the bones. It is said that some 2 million tonnes of meat world -wide are discarded with the bone. This can be recovered by a mechanical scraping process in which bones with adhering meat are generally broken into small pieces and the soft components, meat, fat etc., forced through perforated screens and recovered as a finely comminuted product consisting of a gel of meat, fat and sometimes marrow from the inside of the bones together with fine particles of bone. The bone content should be reduced to a minimum; it has been recommended that the calcium content of MRM expressed on a dry matter basis should not exceed 1.5% (Codex 1983).

MRM can increase the overall profitability of meat production not only by increasing meat yield but also by providing a product with emulsifying properties useful in preparing comminuted meat products. Generally MRM is less acceptable than ordinary muscle meat because it is darker in colour due to its high content of haeme protein, and more readily oxidised because of the high fat content.

Because of its physical state and the longer process MRM is subject to heavy microbial contamination; if not used immediately it needs freezing to prevent decomposition.

Reformed Meat Products

Apart from the high regard for certain cuts of meat in some areas there is a growing demand for lean rather than fatty cuts. The high cost of such products has led to the use of other, less expensive cuts of meat which are higher in content of connective tissue but can have some of this tissue, together with skin and gristle, removed in a process of comminution and reformation.

The pieces of meat are treated in a tumbling device with brine which penetrates the tissues and extracts some of the myofibrillar protein to form a gel (as descibed earlier).

At a low temperature the product can be compressed into thin flakes which bind together when the meat is heated, sometimes with the addition of binding agents such as wheat gluten, egg albumin and soya; the final product can be shaped or sliced.

The nutritive value of reformed meat products depends on the tissue used and the added ingredients, and approximates to that of comminuted products.

Protein Extraction

A recently discovered but highly technical process for recovering edible foodstuffs from by-products of low acceptability (such as lungs and stomachs) is extraction of the proteins.

The procedure is similar to that of preparing textured vegetable proteins usually made to simulate meat. The proteins are extracted in alkali and reprecipitated from solution by acidifying. If the alkaline solution is forced through fine tubes (spinnerets) into the acid solution it is precipitated in the form of long fibres which can be pressed and texturised to a solid form. High temperature extrusion is also used. Other materials such as soya can be incorporated.

There is an added advantage in that the number of micro-organisms is greatly reduced during the process.

A recent method of using low quality meats is the application of the Japanese fish surimi process to meat and poultry by-products. This consists of mechanically deboning and washing to remove water-soluble proteins, enzymes, minerals and fat to leave a product that is stable and with a high concentration of salt-soluble myofibrillar proteins that have the capacity to form strong elastic gels when gently heated. Fish surimi is used to make a range of products by extrusion and shaping and it seems possible to apply the procedure to meat. Low-quality meat is rich in fat and the process is intended to remove the greater part of the fat and to make novel meat products or to add to traditional meat products such as sausages, sliced cooked meat and burgers or other foods.

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